Singh, Rana P.B. 1994. Sacred Geometry of Varanasi. Nat. Geog.Jl. India, 40: 189-216. 208
In the Vedic literature, Varanasi has, of course, not received much attention. However, in
the Puranic literature and treatises, its glory has been vividly stated. The concept of image is
described with various names like Kashi (The “Luminous”), Avimukta (The “NeverForsaken”
by Lord Shiva), Anadavana (The “Forest of Bliss”), and Rudravasa (The Dwelling place of
Shiva). The mahatmya (glorification) literature describes its various forms, shapes, territories,
and associated sacred numbers. Among such symbols, the description of varying symbolic
forms of Kashi/ Varanasi in mythical time is unique in spatial exposition (cf. Singh, 1988b:
3-5). The Nagara Khanda of the Skanda Purana (ref. the Kashi Rahasya, SB Tika, p. 119)
describes the territorial form of the sacred city as it was in the four mythic eras (yugas in Hindi
cosmology). Accordingly, the shape of Kashi was like a Trident (trishula) in Krita/ Satya (an
era of 1,728,000 years), a Disc (cakra), in Treta (1,296,000 years), Chariot (ratha) in Dvapara
(864,000 years), and a Conch-shell (shankha) in Kali (432,000 years). These four forms clearly
indicate the peopling, and territorial demarcation through the sites of various shrines (Fig. 16).
The three forks of trident are represented by the three basic segmentary Shiva lingas, i.e.,
Omkareshvara in the north, Vishveshvara in the centre, and Kedareshvara in the south. These
three lingas refer to the areas around them that were settled in ancient times and also are the
patron deities of their respective segments (khandas). Metaphorically, it is said that Kashi lies
upon the trident of Shiva.
The disc-form was developed in Treta and corresponds to the Caurashikroshi Yatra as a
circle with Madhyameshvara at the centre and Dehli Vinayaka (i.e., gate to the cosmic circle,
controlled by Ganesha as guardian) as the radial point. It covers a circumambulatory
circumference of 184 miles/ 296 km, and symbolises the circumambulation of the cosmos.
However, this journey is now rarely performed. At the four cardinal points, there exist four
Bhairava shrines. Bhairava is perceived as the terrifying form of Shiva who controls kala (time
and death). He is also known as Kala Bhairava.
The form of a chariot (in Dvapara) may be explained with the location of seven forms of
Shiva lingas as referred to in the text: Gokarneshvara, Shulatankeshvara, Manikarnikeshvara
and Bharabhuteshvara as the four wheels of the chariot on which Vishveshvara is sitting, and
Madhyameshvara and Omkareshvara as the driving horses, with the Ganga river as the path.
The direction of movement towards north metaphorically indicates the search for Shiva’s abode
in the north (i.e., Kailasha), and also the search for the radiant spot on the cosmic path.
The present form (in Kaliyuga) is comparable to a conch-shell. Including the above six
lingas (as in Dvapara), Vighnaraja Vinayaka in the north-west, Shaileshvara in the north along
the Varana river, Kedareshvara in the south-east, and Lolarka in the south, it makes the shape
of a conch-shell.
The description of the above four symbolic forms of Kashi is comparable to territorial
strategy that establishes different degrees of access to people, things, and relationships to the
scales of space, time, and faith. In all four forms, the Ganga river is the base. According to
another description, the two water channels, which delimit the territorial extent of the city in
the north and south, can be compared to arteries of Shiva’s mythical body. In the language of
yoga, the rivers Asi and Varana, respectively, symbolise ida and pingala, and the third artery
interlinking the Ganga to the Matsyodari, or the Brahmanala is referred to as sushumna (cf.
Kashi Khanda 5.25-26; 33.167). The various holy sites are said to correspond to the parts of the
body of Shiva, as he himself said, ‘Kashi is my body’ (ibid.: 55.44).
According to another description in the Kashi Khanda (33.167-172), the city of Varanasi
is Shiva’s body, whose different parts are represented by the selective 18 lingas. The number
18 symbolises the 18 branches of knowledge, including the four Vedas, six parts of the Vedic
divisions, and the rest of the branches. In this way, the city itself is the symbol of total
knowledge. The visitation and performance of rituals at these sites provide the total knowledge.
However, even by visiting a single linga of Puraneshvara (Krittivasheshvara), one can receive
the similar merit (cf. Kashi Khanda 33.132), as this linga symbolises all the 18 lingas at
another level (see Fig. 17).